The Show Still Went on – Despite the Risk Assessments!

Perelandra Beedles

The spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) had a profound impact on many industries, and the broadcast sector was no exception. As governments around the world imposed various restrictions to try to limit the further spread of the virus, the impact on film and TV production was immediate.

I followed the progress of the UK broadcast industry closely, as they attempted to meet the requirement for covid health and safety measures. Having worked for decades as a Producer and Production Manager I already knew how inventive and hardworking productions teams can be, but it was still impressive to see just how pioneering television crews became; from filming presenters in their homes, to creating storylines which allowed covid bubbles of crew and cast to be formed; it was an exercise in rapid innovation.

The film and TV Restart Scheme (DCMS/Gov) may have helped productions mitigate against issues in terms of insurance, but it was the clear guidelines created by organisations such as the  British Film Commission (BFC) and PACT which offered vital signposting in the early days of getting production back on track.

It was also the moment for production managers to shine. Already used to delivering a centrally orchestrated approach to behaviours, they quickly ​adapted to new Covid protocols, developing ground-breaking methodologies to do so.​ This work was not only impressive in terms of production craft, but also played a vital role in helping the nation survive the challenges of lockdown. Ensuring the public were still able to access engaging, wonderful shows, even on the darkest of days.

Prior to Covid, the Television Research group at Edge Hill University, had already decided to create the Critical Awards in Television. As we all spent longer amounts of times indoors, the need to celebrate television and all it offered us became ever more important; and so it felt entirely right to create a Covid Health and Safety award.

We have invited production companies to nominate the productions they feel were particularly successful in negotiating health and safety for their productions. Voting is still open and the response to this acknowledgement to the demands created by the new H & S protocols has been truly humbling. Production Managers have spoken of the varied and holistic approaches they had to create, as the boundaries between homelife and the production office were blurred.​

From having to teach presenters and their families to self-shoot from home, to reinventing workflows to allow everything to be shot and edited fully remotely, what is abundantly clear is that the UK television industry is open to learn, able to adapt and will always find a way to keep the nation entertained.

The Critical Awards in Television will be held on 27th September at Wavertree Town Hall. We invite you to join us virtually by registering here.

Perelandra Beedles is a Senior lecturer in Television production Management in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on the impact of production schedules on those with caring responsibilities and sustainable television production.

Image: Screenshot from Staged

It’s Official: It’s Not Television That Makes You Stupid

Elke Weissmann

On Monday, 13 September, The Guardian ran a story with the subtitle ‘TV really does rot your brain’. It was based on research by different American health scientists who looked into the relationship between (self-reported) television consumption and decline in grey matter in later life. The great aspect was that these were long-term studies, often starting as far back as the 1980s. The not so great element was that they focused on self-reported television consumption (seldom, sometimes, often) and very little else. When you read the statement of one of the research leads, Kelley Pettee Gabriel, what becomes evident is that it’s not about watching television but sedentary behaviour which television consumption is assumed to be.

So it’s not television, it’s lack of movement which is the actual problem. You could as well say ‘driving everywhere makes you stupid’. But obviously that is not a headline people would trust. However, a headline works that confirms society’s believes about television, a hugely important medium, but one where the technology is based in the home and has become a ‘home appliance’, which we consume in the private sphere and which women consume more. So why does television remain the bad object?

In my own research from 2012 I highlighted that television in the UK only became ‘good’ in the eyes of critics when it could be masculinised, either by the recourse to an imagined ‘creative genius’ of a showrunner or by connecting it to technology such as the internet and streaming services. What that research also implied is that in the UK (and also in the US) television overall remains connected to the feminine (and the working-class).

The value systems that are applied in order to judge television remain those highly established in our society. Valuable is that which is connected to the masculine, the upper or upper middle-classes and often that which is white (unless it is working class and white). Everything else is just labelled ‘trash’, at best perceived as popular culture, at worst as ‘rotting your brain’.

But television is a medium of incredible innovation and of huge importance in our daily lives. Be honest: how often did you turn to television for information, comfort or both during the pandemic? And what role does television play for you in your daily life? Should we not, because we use it daily, celebrate it more?

Well, that was our thinking when we developed the Critical Awards in Television, an award that aims to celebrate that which is often forgotten or overlooked and which we set up in order to challenge the hierarchies described above. Considering the impact of the pandemic on us all, we decided to focus this year on everything to do with the pandemic.

This meant celebrating writing and production design that managed to use the constraints of the pandemic for creative purposes, celebrating those production managers who are in charge of health and safety who have managed to come up with clever ideas to continue producing the programmes we love, and giving an award to the television programme that gave us most comfort.

The last category (the television programme that gave us most comfort) is decided by you, the public, and you can still vote by putting the number 195-874-377 into the Vevox app (voting closes Monday 20 September 2021).

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.

Does the Award for Best Television Programme go to What We Value Most?

Elke Weissmann

It’s award season: the BAFTAs have just been celebrated at the beginning of June, and in America, the Emmys will be handed out in September. Did your favourite programmes win? No? Some of them? You are not sure?

Your potential lack of knowledge is not all that surprising. This is the industry celebrating itself and letting us in via the ceremony. But what that means is that there might be a bit of a disconnect between what we as audiences value about television and what the industry celebrates for itself.

The BAFTAs, for example, largely celebrate television as if it were film: awards go to writing, best performance (in different genres), supporting actors, and then best programme in genre categories – as if they didn’t know what to do with all the rest of television. I don’t know about you, but it’s the rest of television plus drama that I love so much: it’s its variety, and the fact that there are some incredibly clever people who manage to bring them together so I can just watch one programme and see what’s on next.

But there are other things about television that we can and that we do value: for example, you might watch lifestyle programming so that you learn about interior design trends, or The Repair Shop (BBC, since 2017) for its heart-rendering stories of loved possessions and family loved and lost, or Love Island (ITV, since 2015) for how ordinary young adults connect with each other, but really care more about their families. Value, in other words, lies in many places in television, and often the things that we value have more to do with our everyday lives than the glamour and glitz that awards based around filmic categories suggest.

The problem with awarding television as if it were film is that it does what so much of television’s history has done: it undervalues television as a medium. Television scholarship has spent a lot of time and effort on trying to critique the basic value systems with which it has been judged. Television has been denigrated because it is a medium connected to the domestic sphere and is hence often perceived as feminine. It has been looked down upon as a mass medium because the ‘masses’ are usually conceptualised as working class. Thus, the value systems with which we judge television as a medium, but also much of its genres, are those of a middle-class patriarchy. At the same time, the people who make the biggest decisions in television are precisely white, middle-class and male, and have therefore often looked down on the medium itself. A particularly notorious figure in that regard was William Haley, director general of the BBC between 1944 and 1952, who made his preference for radio very clear.

While television scholarship has been brilliant at critiquing the implicit biases of much of the value judgements made about television, it hasn’t yet been able to really offer alternatives. The Television Studies Research Group at Edge Hill University, in collaboration with Critical Studies in Television, the Production Guild, the Institute for Social Responsibility and Love Wavertree now want to do something about this: they are introducing the CATs: the Critical Awards in Television which will celebrate television in the way that we think matters. And I don’t know about you, but this year, I really valued that it kept going. So this year, we are celebrating television that gave us comfort during Covid, that dealt well with the new health and safety guidelines, that came up with ingenious writing or production design so that it could be made, and that our students made despite the pandemic.

And we invite you – the public – to nominate your favourite programmes. To find out more, and to nominate the programme you think did best in those categories, please visit the CATs website.

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.

A Year of Covid TV

Covid Anniversary Blog

In a year when we spent more time at home than ever before, television provided a crucial window on the world. Ofcom estimated in August 2020 that during lockdown people were spending an average of 40% of their waking hours in front of a screen. TV watching was up by approximately a third.

While this might look like a windfall for TV broadcasters, these activities coincided with a sudden recession which wiped out a swath of advertising money. This led to a frustrating paradox – more people were watching, but broadcasters could not make extra revenue from the larger audiences.

In any case, there was the significant problem of what to fill schedules with. Like in most industries, normal processes for TV production juddered to a halt. We quickly became used to seeing contributors to news or panel shows Zooming in from home, with the inevitable ‘hilarity’ caused by interrupting children or pets.

Though our usual expectations for what TV ‘should’ look like were upended, in some ways these new practices provided a heightened version of the TV experience. TV has historically operated using an aesthetic that combines intimacy – an emphasis on human connection – with immediacy – the feeling that we are we are watching things unfold as they happen. Zoom interviews combine the two, giving us a momentary glimpse into the private world (and at the carefully curated bookshelves) of contributors.

But there were still huge gaps to fill in the schedules. Research at the University of Huddersfield suggested that this did not go unnoticed by audiences, who found their usual menu of ‘event television’ (high profile new shows scheduled in peak time) replaced by repeats.

The launch of Disney+ in March 2020 was seen by many as another nail in the coffin of broadcast television. Indeed, streaming video on demand services added an extra 4.6m subscribers during lockdown. Research found that people were turning to drama boxsets to escape the tedium.

Adopting a ‘show must go on’ attitude, the UK television industry agreed protocols in May 2020 for Covid secure productions. The gradual resumption of regular programming – especially soaps – mirrored the slow return to normality experienced in daily life. The reliability and routine of television schedules, especially daytime television provided a source of comfort to those who suddenly found themselves adrift in furlough.

Meanwhile, daily televised briefings provided a much-needed demonstration of the power and value of broadcasting. Watching the Prime Minister and his associates (or in Scotland, the First Minister) deliver key messages became for many a grim ritual, but one enabled by broadcast’s unique ability to gather a nation together.

The impact of Covid on TV production and broadcast has been vast and painfully visible. But it can also teach us about the ongoing value and importance television has in our lives: as a source of information, of comfort, and of connection. The problem comes of course, when you find that you have ‘completed Netflix’, and what to do next!

Dr Hannah Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Totem and Taboo: UK Television Comedy in the light of Black Lives Matter

While our lives have been upended by the pandemic, the outrage triggered by the killing of George Floyd has drawn vital attention to the global scourge of racism. The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has been immediate and spectacular. Protesters around the world have braved Covid-19 to amplify their anti-racist message.

In the UK, a totemic moment occurred as a controversial statue to slaver Edward Colston was torn from its pedestal and thrown into Bristol Harbour. This has prompted debate around the role and meaning of public art – one that will likely gain traction as it will provide a distraction from the politics of coronavirus.

Black Lives Matter has provoked an international reckoning in the creative industries. Apologies for intolerance and systemic racism have been issued from firms, institutions and individuals, from Anna Wintour of Vogue to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

There have also been highly publicised statements of regret from comedians and light entertainers for past racial insensitivities. Jimmy Fallon, Ant and Dec, Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain, and Leigh Francis of Bo Selecta have apologised for previously performing in blackface.

Each celebrity makes clear that this was a different time, that they would make better choices now. This rings false. Unlike the Colston statue, Bo Selecta and Little Britain are recent cultural artefacts. While our understanding of social injustice may have evolved, the 2000s was hardly an era where racist representation went unchallenged. The offence caused by Bo Selecta and Little Britain (Malik, 2010) was noted at the time.

It was reported by those directly affected by it: black performers like Craig David and Trisha Goddard whose personal lives and careers suffered as a result of Francis’ caricatures. Caricature attacks the individual, but also paradoxically makes them recognisable, through the grotesque distortion of physical appearance. In Bo Selecta, this was combined with racial stereotyping. Goddard noted that this emboldened people’s casual racism towards her and her family.

Comedy’s theorised function of providing a ‘release valve’ for social taboos has been used to defend comedic use of stereotypes, including blackface. A familiar answer to complaints of misrepresentation is to assert oversensitivity, the unwillingness to take a joke. Yet, being the butt of a joke is disempowering and has a negative cumulative effect on personal and collective self-esteem. A better use of caricature is to subvert stereotype, to punch up rather than down.

The apparently sudden realisation of blackface’s unacceptability has prompted the removal of comedy series such as The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen from Netflix and Little Britain from iPlayer. Removing content like this, or Gone With The Wind from public circulation is a flimsy, tokenistic gesture, a means of skirting rightful critique of these representations and the industries that produced them. Allowing cultural debates to centre on relics of racial injustice, even recent ones, runs the risk of overshadowing the more discreet, more crucial work of dismantling systemic racism.

Dr Hannah Andrews is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.

Refs: Malik, S. (2010) ‘How Little Britain ‘does’ race’ in Lockyer, S. (ed) Reading Little Britain: Comedy Matters on Contemporary Television. London: I.B. Tauris, 75 – 94.

Related post:
A note from the editor: Black Lives Matter

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash